oDR: Feature

The high price of political activism in Crimea

The arrest of Crimean Tatar political leader Nariman Dzhelyal is a grim reminder of the reality of Russian annexation

David Axelrod
8 September 2021, 1.26pm
Nariman Dzhelyal rose to prominence after Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula in 2014
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Source: Crimean Solidarity

When Nariman Dzhelyal was detained by Russian security forces on 4 September, the Crimean Tatar leader spent the next day “in a basement, in handcuffs and with a bag on his head”, according to his lawyer.

This treatment is, sadly, par for the course since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014. Since then, the Crimean Tatar community has faced wave upon wave of arrests – often on terrorism and sabotage charges. Dzhelyal, a deputy leader of the Crimean Tatar Meijlis, a representative body that has been banned by Russia, had only recently returned from an international summit devoted to Crimea when he was arrested at his home on Sunday.

The Crimean branch of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claims that a group including Dzhelyal is responsible for damaging a gas pipeline close to a Russian military base outside the city of Simferopol. Security officials claim that detainees have already confessed, and have published a video to that effect.

In response to the arrest of Dzhelyal and others, dozens of people gathered outside the FSB headquarters in Simferopol to demand information about Dzhelyal and the other people detained inside – their friends and relatives. Within a matter of minutes, Russian security forces had detained more than 40 people. Some were simply escorted to the nearby police wagons, others were beaten and had their arms twisted, according to eyewitnesses.

This is not the first case connected to alleged sabotage and espionage in Crimea. Members of a number of alleged sabotage groups have been detained by the FSB in recent years – and these arrests have been accompanied by allegations of torture. Earlier this year, for example, a journalist for Radio Liberty, Vladislav Esipenko, was detained on espionage charges in Crimea - and claimed that he was tortured by the FSB.

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After Dzhelyal and others' arrest, 40 people were arrested outside FSB headquarters in Simferopol | Source: Crimean Solidarity

A life in Crimean politics

Dzhelyal did not enter Crimean Tatar politics immediately, his friends recall. After graduating from university, he worked in local newspapers and television, and then decided to run as a delegate to the Qurultay, the national parliament of the Crimean Tatars.

Dzhelyal rose to public prominence after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. In the aftermath, the local authorities banned Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov from entering the peninsula and opened a number of criminal investigations against them.

As a result, Dzhelyal – who regularly spoke about the situation of the Crimean Tatars to journalists and international human rights organisations – became one of the most prominent activists on the peninsula. Online, Dzhelyal regularly published information about the actions of the Russian security forces against Crimean Tatars – as he had done on the day of his arrest.

“He never concealed the fact he did not recognise the annexation of Crimea,” said Nikolai Polozov, Dzhelyal’s lawyer, “but at the same time he always spoke very calmly, diplomatically, and in a balanced way. He never sounded any sharp calls for radical action. Nariman has always insisted on exclusively peaceful methods for his struggle.”

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Nariman Dzhelyal | Source: Facebook

In a letter published by his lawyer on 8 September, Dzhelyal wrote: “All the searches, interrogations and prison cells don’t particularly worry me. I expected this to happen for a long time. What surprised me was that they chose ‘Sabotage’. I never thought about doing that kind of thing. That’s not my method. But that’s how it turned out.”

Arrest and allegations

Crimean lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who specialises in political cases, said he was perhaps the last person who spoke to Dzhelyal before the FSB searched his home.

On the night of 3 September, the activist had called Kurbedinov to say that the security forces had begun a search at the homes of his neighbours, Aziz and Asan Akhtemov. A few hours later, the FSB began searching Dzhelyal’s home too.

At that time, Dzhelyal was formally only a witness in the FSB’s investigation into the gas pipeline incident. Nevertheless, he was removed from his home with a bag over his head, Polozov said, and was only able to speak to his lawyer after he was declared a suspect in the case.

“The fact that this is all a circus was clear from the very beginning,” Polozov claims. “Tell me, in what universe is an ordinary witness kept with a bag on his head?”

The FSB alleges that Dzhelyal is an accomplice in carrying out sabotage on a gas pipeline in the village of Perevalnoye, located a few kilometres southwest of Simferopol. According to the security services, the group that organised the explosion included at least two more people: Aziz and Asan Akhtemov, Dzhelyal’s neighbours. According to human rights defenders, Asan, 32, works as a mechanic in Simferopol, and Aziz, 26, is a professional driver.

In a video published by the FSB, the Akhtemov brothers say on camera that they were instructed to blow up the gas pipeline by a Ukrainian military intelligence officer, whom they met in the city of Kherson, in Ukraine, in June this year. Similar confession videos followed an FSB investigation into another alleged sabotage plot in Crimea in 2016.

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On 7 September, the FSB published a confession video of Asan and Aziz Akhtemov | Source: FSB

Dzhelyal, according to the FSB, was the link between the Akhtemovs and Ukrainian military intelligence. It was Dzhelyal, the FSB claims, who gave the phone number of the Ukrainian intelligence officer to the Akhtetovs – and, allegedly, he did so knowingly.

Dzhelyal’s defence has decided not to testify, and declined to comment on information about whether the activist had passed the phone number of a Ukrainian intelligence officer to his neighbours.

The Crimean authorities have already expressed support for the investigation into the gas pipeline incident.

“All this proves once again that the activities of agent provocateurs from the [Crimean Tatar] Meijlis and their supporters are part of a hybrid war launched against Russia,” head of the Republic of Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, said.

Fear and lowered eyes

Like Nariman Dzhelyal, Aziz and Asan Akhtemov were detained immediately after their homes were searched on the morning of 4 September. Throughout the day, lawyers who had signed an agreement with their relatives attempted to find their clients in holding prisons across Crimea, but without success.

Kurbedinov is sure that the Akhtemov brothers were tortured throughout the day on 4 September, and that the result of this torture is the FSB’s now published video of their confession. Prior to the detention hearing, the brothers refused independent legal counsel.

Safie Shabanova, a lawyer who managed to see the Akhtemov brothers, claims that they were frightened when she visited them, though she was able to communicate with them only in the presence of an FSB investigator, Vitaly Vlasov – coincidentally, the same investigator responsible for the case against journalist Vladislav Esipenko. Shabanova and the Akhmetovs were not given time and space for confidential communication.

The FSB has not commented on the suspicion that the Akhtemov brothers were tortured.

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Police detain people gathered outside FSB headquarters in Simferopol | Source: Crimean Solidarity

In addition, the FSB also detained two other men: Shevket Useinov, a resident of Yevpatoria, and Eldar Odamanov, a Simferopol resident. The latter was arrested on 3 September, and no information was received about him for more than a day.

Lawyers, citing the two men’s relatives, said that the searches in their homes were also carried out as part of an investigation into the sabotage of the gas pipeline, but as a result, Odamanov and Useinov were sentenced to 14 and 15 days of arrest, respectively, for resisting police officers.

“Frankly, I’m not sure that [Odamanov and Useinov] will be released,” said Kurbedinov. “Security officials have two weeks of uncontrolled access to them, so I would not be surprised if they eventually also become involved in this case.”

The explosion

The gas pipeline near Perevalnoye military base was damaged at the end of August, according to media reports. According to the Crimean authorities, this pipeline was not used to supply the village of Perevalnoye itself.

Crimea’s Ministry of Internal Affairs reported on 23 August that, based on the results of an inspection of the pipe, experts had drawn conclusions that the damage “may have occurred as a result of the unlawful actions of unidentified persons”. Initially, police opened a criminal case into “deliberate destruction or damage to property”, without any reference to sabotage.

The local authorities in Perevalnoye refrained from categorical statements. “I am not an expert in what could cause damage to the pipe,” village head Oleg Litvinenko told local media at the time.

Related story

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The recent detainment and alleged torture of a reporter on espionage charges highlights the grim reality of media in the Russian-controlled peninsula

According to Nikolai Polozov, Dzhelyal’s lawyer, an analysis of news published around 23 August indirectly indicates that there might not have been an explosion at the gas pipeline at all. “The damage, in theory, could have arisen from a variety of reasons, including heavy wear and tear,” he said.

openDemocracy examined 11 social media groups devoted to life in Perevalnoye and its surrounding villages. None of the posts or comments for 22-24 August mentioned the gas pipe explosion, which, hypothetically, could have been heard by local residents.

Boomerang

Dzhelyal’s associates believe the case against him could be linked to his recent participation in the Crimea Platform summit.

This official Ukrainian diplomatic initiative was held in Kyiv in late August, and, in the words of its organisers, was designed “to return the Crimean issue to the international agenda and to facilitate the return of Ukrainian control over Crimea.”.

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Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at the Crimea Platform in Kyiv, 23 August | (c) Ukrinform/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

In particular, Dzhelyal’s friends refer to the reaction of Georgy Muradov, Crimea’s deputy prime minister, on the eve of the Kyiv summit. The summit, Muradov said at the time, “will, like a boomerang, come back to hit the people who thought it up and who will try to implement it”.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called the summit “a Russophobic, artificially created action”, as well as “an empty propaganda undertaking that has no prospects.” At the time of publication, openDemocracy had not managed to reach Georgy Muradov for comment.

According to activists, Dzhelyal was not the only Crimean Tatar politician who visited the Crimea Platform summit – he travelled to Kyiv as part of a group of several people.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Zair Smedlya, Dzhelyal’s friend, said he believes that one of the goals of the Russian security forces is to “behead” the Crimean Tatar movement, and that all those who were present at the summit “are also expecting to be arrested”.

“Nariman is both the brains and the mouthpiece of the [Crimean Tatar] national movement, and the person who is able to rally people around him,” Smedlya said.

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